Unspoken Voices from the Cambrian Institute

When looking at archival sources for the institute it has often been difficult to hear the children’s voices. This is a common problem with disability history, that their stories have remained unheard. This difficulty has inspired us to write this blog, Unspoken Voices, to tell the stories of those who have often been hidden in history.

For this final blog post we are going to focus on William Jenkin Davies a “deaf and dumb” child, who was a pupil at the Cambrian Institute. William was born in 1846 into a family of 8 children, with 3 sisters who were also “deaf and dumb”. However, only William was sent off to the Cambrian institute, a pattern widely seen at the institute, which had very few female students.

The schools days were strictly timetabled, and although we can’t be completely sure of his daily activities, our research suggests he would have followed the timetable, as shown below. He would have been instructed in both education, as well as manual subjects, in order to prepare him for life outside the institute, work which was often provided by friends.

The dietary program of the children were scheduled to the exact ounce per child depending on their age, this can be seen in the image below. During the week, the children would either have bread and milk or porridge and milk for breakfast a day. Their tea was the same every day, bread and butter with coffee. If you were older then you would have been given bread and cheese for your supper. We know today that young children like those at the Cambrian Institute should not have coffee but also there are many studies nowadays suggesting that the caffeine in coffee can be harmful to people with mental illnesses.

During the research we discovered that William J. Davies had been ill many times in the year of the 1861 census which shows him in the Cambrian Institute in April 1861. The Cambrian Institute was hit by sickness and disease, which had hit Swansea round the time of the census. There are correspondences showing William J. Davies coming back and forth from his home in North Wales during his period of illness. Although these children may have been more susceptible to illness and disease, this may have been increased by the poor conditions of the Cambrian Institute such has been discussed in early posts. Unfortunately, while at his home in late October 1861 William passed away. There is a report from the Headmaster about William’s character and untimely death a week after the news of his death. The Headmaster never mentioned William’s disability in his report to the council members just stating that he would be missed by the other children at the Institute.

Although deaths like this are sad, for children in disabled schools it was a common occurrence then and now. Anika Baddeley has commented on the normality of deaths in her school life, therefore demonstrating parallels between the past and today.

Although the school cared for the children the best they could with poor funding there are still reports of abuse, similar to those we hear about today. Once such child was Stephen Franklin, who was transferred from a workhouse to the Cambrian Institute however shortly after he was returned to the workhouse with serious injuries. The boy was investigated by the medical officer at the workhouse who found extension bruising and a poor mental state, the report was sent back to the Cambrian Institute but there is little evidence that this report was taken any further.

Similarly, today there are a number of reports of abuse in schools and care homes, for example: Springwood Primary School in Salford and in a care home near Bristol. Although we think of these types of abuse as being “Victorian” and a thing of the past, these abuses can be seen today. In Springwood Primary, three children were abused and the parents complained that it had been “swept under the carpet.” It is clear that there are lessons to be learnt from the past, perhaps if we paid more attention to the past we could rectify this. This therefore shows the importance of studying disability history which is as important as other histories, including black history and gender history.

It is easy to confine events that occurred in the Cambrian Institute in the past, yet we hope to have demonstrated how this is untrue. There are many parallels between the past and present day and  there are definite improvements in the care of disabled children and people, however there is still room for improvement and lessons to be learnt by reflecting on the past.

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Children of the Cambrian

Looking through the records it can be difficult to hear the children’s voices shine through. However, after looking at the records at the West Glamorgan Archives we can begin to piece together an image of the children and their overall condition. Two such children are Michael Leary and Mary Pritchard. We find numerous accounts in the reports from the headmaster to the council and board members, that there is a great need for clothes for the children. One such report mentions Michael Leary stating that he wants some boots and his Sunday best, so he can go to church. Mary Pritchard on the other hand can be found throughout the letter books, with letters back and forth from the school to her family. These included requests for transport money so she can go home for Christmas and then having to change plans and the school decided it was best she stayed in Swansea. Like Michael Leary there are a number of letters concerning the need for more clothes, which seems becomes an issue in August and then nearer to winter.

In these letters the headmaster continuously states that Mary is doing well and is happy. This line is repeated in almost every letter to Mary’s family and also in letters to other children’s families.

Credit to West Glsmorgan Archives

Credit to West Glamorgan Archives

Credit to West Glamorgan Archives

Credit to West Glamorgan Archives

Provisions in Education at the Cambrian Institute

Education is something that is essential in peoples lives today and something that is constantly in the limelight. In fact, education hasn’t only become crucial in this day and age, but has been for a very long time. Good education needs good provisions, or at least provisions to allow someone to get by successfully. When taking disability in to consideration, the Victorians had the right idea.

The concern for the education of the hearing impaired goes back a long time in Wales. It did not become compulsory for deaf children to receive an education until 1893, however efforts for this to be brought forward on behalf of the deaf took place many years prior.Proof of this is, of course, ‘The Cambrian Institute’. It was agreed in 1847 that an institution for the education of deaf and dumb children in Wales be established in Aberystwyth, later moving the institute to Swansea in 1850 as discussed in a previous blog post about ‘The History of The Cambrian Institute’.

Although the conditions of the institute were not brilliant, of what we have gathered the provisions weren’t too poor. In 1856, the building at the top of Mound Pleasant was erected, the original central part of which was of Pennant Sandstone with a Bath stone dressing, at a cost of £1,800. In addition to this, a west wing was added in 1864 at a cost £700 followed by a two-storey east wing ten years later costing £900.

We also know that the institution included a committee, a secretarial department and a domestic department, meaning that they did their best to have an influence on the children’s education. However, the institute only had three teachers, including the principle, one matron and one assistant matron. This isn’t a significant number of staff to support the staff to pupil ratio.

Here is a list of the educational lessons that were provided to the children by the institute: Languages, holy scripture, religion, arithmetic, geography, general information and gymnastics. Although this list doesn’t stretch very far it is evident that the Cambrian Institute did have an acceptable range of provisions in education.

Below are educational photographs from the institute (Courtesy of the West Glamorgan Archives)Featured image    Featured image

Conditions in the Cambrian Institute

In this post, we are going to discuss the conditions of the house itself using primary documents from the West Glamorgan Archives. This record gave us insight into the conditions they had to live in. It was a series of reports from the headmaster to the council describing the institute. Throughout the report there are several entries about the damage to the building, from the collapsing roof, to the lack of running water. The fact that there are repeated entries about these problems shows that little notice was taken, whereas today if a school, or any public facility was in this condition, action would be taken immediately. It is difficult to imagine pupils having to live and work in these circumstances. However, what we found shocking was the fact that despite these problems, pupils remained in contact with the school and teachers suggesting that in spite of the conditions, it wasn’t necessarily a bad life for them in the Cambrian Institute.

This is one of the many entries referring to the lack of water at the school from the log book, courtesy of the West Glamorgan Archive.

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The History of the Cambrian Institute

As previously posted, we are going to be focussing on the Cambrian Institute for the Deaf and dumb. Over the next few posts we aim to build an overview of the institute itself, and the conditions for the students. In this post we will provide the background of the institute.

The institute was founded in 1847 in Aberystwyth, but was moved to Swansea in 1850 as it was found it was much more accessible, and students from a wide area could now attend. The number of attending students initially was only 2, but this gradually increased throughout its lifetime and increased rapidly following WW2. The children boarded there, only going home during the holidays. During this time they were taught a variety of subjects, as well as practical skills to enable them to earn a living outside of the school, and these lessons were taught through both speech and sign.

However, conditions in the school often deteriorated, as will be discussed later, and pupils were also affected by diseases prevalent in Swansea. There were several cholera outbreaks in Swansea which the school also suffered with, as well as Typhoid fever which killed a pupil in 1874. Despite these challenges, many former pupils stayed in touch with the school, and some even asked the teachers to officiate their weddings. The school itself remained standing until 1957 when it became a registered charity, and the school itself ceased to exist. However, the foundation remains an integral part of education for disabled children and adults in wales.

This is an image of the pupils and staff at the school in 1900, courtesy of the West Glamorgan Archive Service.

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Differing attitudes.

An early post that we put up was about a newspaper article with the title ‘Asylum Scandal’. This article was about the suicide of a man who was in an asylum, and about the neglect of care he was given. When we were researching the Cambrian Institute we discovered a letter with an obituary for a boy who died of illness. This has gotten us thinking about the differing attitudes towards people with disabilities in the 19th Century. On the one hand there is the attitude portrayed in the newspaper, where the man is defined by his disability and he is side-lined and neglected- which led to tragic consequences. But on the other hand we have the letter in which the boy is not defined by his disability but his personality is seen as the defining characteristic, and in this letter you do get a sense that he will be missed- this is very different to the newspaper where you do not get a sympathetic view of the man’s death. However, are we that different now? Or do our attitudes vary dramatically today?

Here is the letter (courtesy of the West Glamorgan Archives, Swansea):

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The Cambrian Institute for the Deaf and Dumb

After several trips to the archives, we’ve decided to focus on the Cambrian Institute for the deaf and dumb. Over the next few weeks we are going to be publishing a series of posts describing what life was like for the children in this institute. We will also be introducing you to some of the pupil’s stories who attended the school, all in time for Disability History Month, starting on the 22nd November. Our next post will be introducing you to some of the attitudes disabled people faced at this time.